Thursday, 31 January 2013

Miracle of Rising Turtle

Turtle's Head
The song A Hundred Million Miracles, from Flower Drum Song, was a big hit on the radio when I was little. It's poorly named; the actual Chinese expression is only "ten thousand". But miracle inflation aside, the lyrics are exact. Miracles are indeed popping off all around us, events so unlikely that science would scoff at the mere idea, if we didn't live with them every day. The fact is, life itself is statistically impossible; if it hadn't busted out everywhere for the past billion years, it'd be the stuff of tabloid headlines.

So the Evangelicals have it right: a tornado in a junkyard stands a better chance of assembling a jetliner than the random mingling of primordial pH does of creating life. It's just a shame that they miss the crux of the koan: God is just that big. Life did evolve, by simple cause and effect, from the haphazard admixture of inorganic compounds, against all comprehensible odds. Just because humans can't grok a Universe where all things are changing, in all places, at all times, don't mean it ain't there. That's why the whole science vs. religion spat is nonsense: evolution is creation. And whatever you got trapped in that box, Billy Bob, it ain't God.

(By the way, am I the only one who thinks it's weird that creationists so love that old 747-in-a-junkyard line? Do they know that it was coined by two secular scientists? And that one of them is Buddhist?)

The fact is, the Universe deals in quantities so astronomical (sorry, couldn't resist) that we lack numbers for them. To God, the odds against life evolving on Earth, or anywhere else, are nil. He's got the time, he's got the money, and he's in no hurry. Life is in fact inevitable. One might think this were clear by now, given its tendency to permeate every goddam thing, but some folks are slower on the uptake than others. In the face of all human limits, life is a lock.

And it's going around: the seasons, to name one, are the result of a horrific asteroid collision that left our wet little rock wobbling back and forth like a top ever since. Imagine home without them. Or the tides; what are the odds that a planet would produce a single moon (not a raft of them, or none), in sufficient orbit and with sufficient pull to create a regular, chartable movement of the entire marosphere, fully two-thirds of the planet's surface, and so become the driving engine, along with those accidental seasons, of its entire ecosystem? Have you any idea how Earth we wouldn't be, without these giant, interlocking coincidences? What are the odds? And figure this: in other places, other accidents. Other convergences. Other miracles.

And I haven't even gotten to the comparatively pedestrian, low-variable, dime store miracles that created infusoria like, well, you. Two hundred thousand years ago (still not Hammerstein numbers), two newly-promoted Homo sapiens sapiens (the "Really Modest Man") hooked up. Maybe for life, maybe for lunch. Whatever. The point is, you happened, so fast by God's watch that it doesn't even count micro-nano-fetal seconds that small. Life was hard back then, and short. Odds that your Adam or your Eve would even make it far enough to, er, make it, no bookie would give. To say nothing of the chances of their meeting, when hominid demographics hovered around ten per square continent, and not being from enemy tribes, or whatever other implausibility you care to spin.

And the result of all that actuarial achievement? Just one coupling. Twenty thousand more will have to happen before you squirt into the world. Every single one just as unlikely. Right up to your own two parents. If just one warrior along that long, thin line bobs left when he should have weaved right; one schoolgirl skips that dweeby old dance anyway; one husband doesn't forgive his cheating wife; you never happen. Twenty thousand times.

Now how much would you pay?

Don't answer yet, because you also get millions of pre-Omo miracles, hundreds of thousands of primates and tree shrews and dinosaurs (still in the past hour, Allah Standard Time); cockroaches and trilobites, jellyfish and sponges (just this morning), plankton, diatoms, bacteria. Viruses. Prions. Freakin' amino acids.

Every single birth, every single survival, every single coupling: pure happenstance, entirely deserving of a sceptic's disdain. And if any one of those tributary miracles doesn't happen? Poof! No more you.

And you know who else walks that razor's edge? Every single living being in the Universe. Past, present, and future. At home and abroad. This galaxy and the next.

So the problem is not that miracles don't happen. The problem is they're so relentless we've become numb to them. We don't see them. And so we fall into the mire of pseudo-reason, where we believe it's necessary (hell, even possible) to control the variables. People in other countries sin differently; let's bomb Sumweristan. We don't like Dick and Jane falling in love; we'll punish them. We object to Larry's profession, Curly's religion, Moe's hairstyle. (Ok, maybe that last one.)

The Buddha said that a turtle, rising to the surface in the middle of the ocean, has a better chance of randomly poking his head through a knot on a log that just happens to be there, than you and I have of being born. He wasn't being poetic; the analogy is actually a bit conservative. He also said that humans are virtually the only beings, in all the realms, who can reach Enlightenment.

The point is, you got no time to play Master of the Universe. For God's sake, sit down and shut up, while you still have the backside and mouth to do it. This-here is some serious business. This life, this human life, is already statistically unhavable. And you have one. Don't fritter it away on the existential equivalent of heroin.

Of course, what the Buddha didn't say is that right now, as you read this, across All That Is And Can Be, Here And Elsewhere, an infinite number of turtles is nailing ringers in an infinite number of knotholes.

But stay focused, brothers and sisters. Stay focused.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and William Warby.)
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